Anger inhibition and pain: conceptualizations, evidence and new directions
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- Burns, J.W., Quartana, P.J. & Bruehl, S. J Behav Med (2008) 31: 259. doi:10.1007/s10865-008-9154-7
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Anger and how anger is regulated appear to affect acute and chronic pain intensity. The inhibition of anger (anger-in), in particular, has received much attention, and it is widely believed that suppressing or inhibiting the verbal or physical expression of anger is related to increased pain severity. We examine theoretical accounts for expecting that anger inhibition should affect pain, and review evidence for this claim. We suggest that the evidence for a link between trait anger-in (the self-reported tendency to inhibit anger expression when angry) and acute and chronic pain severity is quite limited owing to a number of factors including a inadequate definition of trait anger-in embodied in the popular anger-in subscale of Spielberger’s Anger Expression Inventory, and a strong overlap between trait anger-in scores and measures of general negative affect (NA). We argue that in order to determine whether something unique to the process of anger inhibition exerts direct effects on subsequent pain intensity, new conceptualizations and approaches are needed that go beyond self-report assessments of trait anger-in. We present one model of anger inhibition and pain that adopts elements of Wegner’s ironic process theory of thought suppression. Findings from this emerging research paradigm indicate that state anger suppression (suppression manipulated in the laboratory) may indeed affect sensitivity to subsequent painful stimuli, and we outline potentially productive avenues of future inquiry that build on this model. We conclude that although studies employing correlational designs and self-reports of trait anger-in have not upheld the claim that anger inhibition affects pain severity, evidence from studies using new models suggests that actually inhibiting anger expression during a provocative event may increase perceived pain at a later time.